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By A bunch of smart young people is giving Calcutta an entrepreneurial shot in the arm, say Angona Paul and Amrita Mukherjee PHOTOGRAPHS BY RASHBEHARI DAS
  • Published 19.12.10

Calcutta’s lifestyle scenario is getting a facelift. From branded momos to international-class designer interiors — a bunch of gritty entrepreneurs are redefining the way we live. These are young go-getters who’re thinking out-of-the-box and doing their own thing, their way.

Whether it’s a chartered accountant launching a quirky home décor store or a com-puter engineer taking to events management, young people from all walks of life are breaking the mould to invest in start-ups. And in the process making the city a cooler, more happening place.

Sagar Daryani & Binod Homagai (Famous for: WOW Momo)

Momos are not new to Calcutta. But what commerce graduates Sagar Daryani and Binod Kumar Homagai did with them certainly is. After graduating from St. Xavier’s College in 2008, the duo borrowed Rs 30,000 from their parents, hired a cook, and launched Wow Momo, the first branded momo chain in the city. Mind you, they launched into their adventure with a 36sqft kiosk in Tollygunge, and today they have 10 Wow Momo outlets spread across Calcutta that sell nearly 7,500 momos a day. The chain’s monthly turnover is to the tune of Rs 15 lakh to 18 lakh.

At the outset the biggest challenge for them was to ensure the right price while maintaining quality. “Roadside stalls sell momos for Rs 10 a plate. We had to make sure that our product was good enough for people to buy even at a higher price,” says Sagar, who handles marketing and brand while Binod looks after management and operations. A Wow Momo chicken combo platter of thukpa, five momos and a soft drink costs Rs 99.

To ensure quality, the duo started out by keeping the profit margin low. Also, unlike the street momos, Sagar and Binod saw to it that the momo filling had more minced meat than minced onions.

Now the duo aims to not only expand in Calcutta but also move into Mumbai and Bangalore by the first quarter of 2011.

Nishit Arora (Famous for: Smoke Inc.)

Nishit Arora is giving a new spin to the live music scenario in the city

Here’s an events management company that has given a whole new spin to the live music scene in the city.

Started in March this year by Nishit Arora, Smoke Inc. is more than just-another events management group. Nishit’s baby has broken barriers on the live music scene with its work at The Basement, the pub at Hotel Samilton. Never before had a pub audience been treated to Baul, R.D. Burman, Satyajit Ray or Bengali alternative music in a pub. Art has no boundaries, and Smoke Inc. proved that with its gigs at The Basement. “Even the alternative rock gigs crowd showed up at our R.D. Burman tribute show where leading live musicians belted out their takes on R.D. classics. That was just what we’d envisaged,” says Nishit.

Having started out as a professional dancer, DJ and amateur events manager, the 30-something Arora was fed up by the “same old stuff — inane shows and the lack of good organisation.” So, he decided to do his own thing. But it was not an easy tune to play. “I continued to think like an artist instead of a playing businessman. Add to that lack of sponsorship, good venues and technical support,” says Nishit. But the aspiring entrepreneur soon learnt the tricks of the trade, and thanks to his contacts and ‘networking’, managed to deal with the problems.

Today Nishit’s fees vary with each project. An event can be done with a little under Rs 75,000 and go up to as much as the client can spend. “We could do an event on the moon if you want but it’ll cost a bomb,” he laughs.

While seminars, brand promotions, theme parties and also school annual day shows are “the real bread and butter”, shows like the ones at The Basement are what give Arora creative satisfaction. His dream? “To do big scale festivals and outdoor events involving folk art, music and dance.”

Varun Desai (Famous for: Littlei)

Varun Desai, whose focus is on promoting live music and the performing arts, has been treating the city to top-notch electronica acts

Varun Desai just recently got back from Amsterdam. His production company Littlei had been invited to participate at the Amsterdam Dance Event, the biggest global conference and festival for electronic music.

Over the last couple of years, Littlei has pumped up the electronic music scene tempo in Calcutta like never before. Thanks to the firm, which focuses on promoting live music and the performing arts, the city has seen cutting-edge electronica acts like The Cosmic Convention with DJ Paul Taylor, the Shanti Jatra Promo Party with Crazy Ducks and German electronica act Mouse on Mars. The firm’s repertoire also covers genres like jazz, blues, classical music and contemporary rock.

“For us, the biggest hurdle is how Calcutta’s perceived vis-a-vis other cities. Corporate houses do not see the city as a big market for contemporary music and events, so finding sponsors is difficult,” says Varun, who organises events costing anywhere between Rs 10,000 and Rs 10 lakh.

“Our motivation is that once we do have a string of big annual events, sponsors will see the city in a different light,” he asserts. And Littlei has been working towards just that. Its events calendar has been choc-a-bloc with top-notch acts like bassist Victor Wooten (in collaboration with Congo Square & Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music), BBC Sound System (Alliance Française), Wayne Krantz (Congo Square) and the Congo Square Jazzfests.

Last year, Littlei helped The New Kenilworth launch the Friday Night Live fixture at its pub, The Big Ben, which gave the city a new address for live music.

Littlei happened after Varun returned from the US having completed his computer-engineering course. While in the US, Varun DJ-ed at festivals, co-managing a record label and organising events in Chicago and New York. “Needless to say, my mind had been opened up by a very active and vibrant cultural movement. Those ideas took the form of Littlei.”

Neha Jalan (Famous for: Onset)

Neha Jalan helped start a revolution of sorts in the city’s luxury home furnishings segment

There was a time when refurbishing interiors would send the city’s swish set jet-setting out of town to shop for the best. Neha Jalan’s Onset changed that. In 2008, armed with a degree in textile designing from Philadelphia and her experience of having worked in her family’s textile export business, the 29-year-old launched the one-stop shop that helped to start a revolution in the Calcutta’s luxury home furnishings segment.

However, it wasn’t easy comprehending the market. “We weren’t sure what elements of the store would work and what wouldn’t,” says Neha. But her staff and she gradually figured out the tastes of their clients and positioned the brand accordingly.

Known especially for its exhaustive range of upholstery fabrics, the three-floor Hindustan Park store also stocks home accessories and décor items sourced from reputed designers like Vasundhara Mantri and Aarti Sanghi. Also on offer are printed fashion fabrics like Swiss voile, Swiss cotton and high-quality laces from Italy and France.

Neha’s objective was to make her store ‘a happy space’. “A customer once told me that when she feels sad, a visit to Onset cheers her up. That’s exactly what I’d wanted,” beams Neha. Neha also offers customers the aid of a special software which allows them to see various samples of the fabric in stock used on virtual furniture.

Onset has seen a 65 per cent growth in sales since it started. And with a presence in Delhi as well as Moscow, Neha plans to expand further soon.

Shrivant & Devina More (Famous for: Kaji)

Kaji by Shrivant (in the picture) and Devina More offers quirky digital art for homes

Also leading the home décor charge from the front — but with a difference — are Shrivant and Devina More. Kaji, the couple’s home décor and digital art store, is responsible for making ‘quirky’ the new home interiors mantra in the city.

The 1,200sqft store has become the favourite haunt for people looking for urban digital art home décor pieces like printed cushions, clocks, storage boxes and more.

Kaji has been steadily climbing the popularity charts over the year. The store is in expansion mode, with Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai as its first targets while the couple also plans to get into interiors consultancy as well. Among the store’s many loyalists are filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh, who inaugurated the store’s extension in August this year and even picked up Godfather and Beatles wall art in 3D .

Devina and Shrivant met as students at Manchester University in the UK. It was when they decided to get married in 2009 that Shrivant took a break to visit Calcutta to get their home done up. And the sad state of affairs in the city’s home decor segment eventually led them to come up with Kaji.

Along with designing a part of Kaji’s repertoire themselves, the Mores also import home accessories and stock products of like-minded designer brands from across India like Happily Unmarried.

Not too many people in this city spare much thought or money on interiors. And changing that mindset was the biggest challenge for the Mores. But the couple had their fingers on the pulse of the city and figured out what would work. “Because Calcutta is so culturally aware, people here don’t mind spending a reasonable amount of money on an Audrey Hepburn or a Beatles digital art work. And that’s what clicked,” says Shrivant. 

(Additional reporting by Lubna Salim and Tania Bhattacharya)